In the early spring, after the snow is gone, I love to walk in the woods looking for the winter-dropped antlers of deer. The most beautiful time to find a fallen antler is in an open stretch of woods late in the afternoon when the sun is dropping soft tiger-stripes of light down through the cedars or pines, and one of those shafts of light happens to fall across the antler’s gleaming brown polished curve.
Sometimes the antler falls right side up, like an open basket, cradled in the leaves as if to hold light and air, and other times the antler falls with the tines sticking down. And then in the cedar jungle, in that end-of-day light, with all the vertical trees and the horizontal twigs and branches on the ground, the incongruity of that beautiful curve on the ground and the beautiful burnished gleam of the antler will leap out to the practiced eye. It is a thing worth seeing, a moment of no small consequence as you come to the spot where a deer lost part of himself but kept on going, a kind of a parting of the ways in that precise spot where you’re standing, and the deer went on into the rest of the winter, having jettisoned it all, and kept living for at least a little longer.
Deer grow new antlers each summer. I cannot grow my mother back, though I must say there are times when my oldest daughter looks at me with the same ice-blue eyes and I am confused, for they are as intent and piercing and beautiful as my mother’s, and they seem to know things that my mother knew.
Because it has become clear to me that I have all the time in the world—for grief moves like a glacier—I have started looking for antlers in the winter, right after the deer have dropped them.
It doesn’t matter if I find any. It is somehow the act that matters, the devotion to the pure improbability of it: like finding a contact lens that has been dropped out of a helicopter and into the ocean.
I take my dogs with me, and I go out on skis. Sometimes we ski down the deer trails, further packing those thin highways through the woods, which will help the deer run faster when pursued, and I feel good that I may be helping them in that manner. It is on these trails where they often lose their antlers—as the deer ducks under a branch, the joint wobbles, then falls, and the antler is cast off.
I probe the snow with my ski poles, listening for the click! of the pole’s tip striking hard antler. Sometimes the dogs and I will cut new trails in the woods— the dogs floundering ahead of me, lunging like porpoises, half-swimming in the snow as they break new trail, with me following on the skis to help pack the new trail down. We’ll spend several days taking the same route, until the deer find it and begin using it. It’s a pleasure to spend several days constructing, with only the strength in your legs, such a trail, and then to ski it one day and find that the deer have discovered it, and to see all their fresh tracks on it where they have used it the night before.
I feel tender toward the deer in winter, and yet I do not grieve when I see where a predator has gotten one, or even when I find one that has starved, one that has used up its fat reserves in the deep snows and has been unable to find anything to eat. I’m sad and quiet, but I do not grieve.
Another quiet sight is to see the reckless dependence deer place, in a hard winter, on the random chance of a fallen tree. The black tree lichen, Bryoria—the old man’s beard—grows high on all the branches of the lodgepole pines, and when a tree falls, it brings that previously unattainable Bryoria down to the ground. It is said that the deer start running toward the sound of a falling tree in winter the minute they hear it.
There is both a numbness and a desperation in the deer’s eyes in the coldest of winters, and some of them do not make it, and what amazes me (I think of this on nights when I am in bed under all the hides and blankets and the thermometer drops to 40 below, and the stars crackle) is the fact that any of them make it. They have nowhere to go, nowhere to hide, and yet they go on because they are meant to go on.
Sometimes I sit alone in the woods, without the dogs, and just think. I remember things: I turn the sterling memories of her over and over in my mind, polishing them like stones. I’ll think of just one day—sometimes a special day—a summer day. I’ll sit there just breathing slowly, breathing smoke clouds, remembering it.
Then I’ll get up and head on home, gliding silently through the woods, across deep new snow, breaking new trail, and I’ll wonder if this is how the deer feel, trudging through all the snow with their heads down.
I continue to look at all the other various tracks and realize that I am learning what so many others before me have learned: that there is no sense that can be made of it, and that it is more frigid and painful and hollow than you ever dreamed it could be, and that you want to lie down and quit but that because you are her son you do not, and you keep going. You keep going, but in so doing it does not mean that you are either understanding or accepting, only that you are still going, and that also by your still going on you know it does not mean that you are leaving the winter behind.